Ouroboros, Inc. Part 4

By Dabeagle


Part 1 is available here: Ouroboros, Inc.
Part 2 is available here: Ouroboros, Inc. Part 2.
Part 3 is available here: Ouroboros, Inc. Part 3.

So much of life seems like it's just a matter of luck. So many things in motion, so many variables that you can't account for. So many things that are so important in the moment, but then forgotten with enough new important moments. In the middle of all that is us – me – trying to figure out which way to jump next. I wanted out. Out of this trailer park, out of this town – but my English teacher had been going through an exercise in class, and it had really hit me in my brain.

Wherever you go, there you are.

It sounds trivially obvious, because of course you are where you are. But English has all these convoluted sentences, all these words that mean more than one thing depending on their use – like so many other languages. I wonder if people just got tired of making up words or noises or couldn't remember them all and just started reusing them. This one was more about your internal self, internal problems being with you. That geography doesn't fix who you are.

Pretty sure I'd be a different person if my dad weren't a head case. I feel bad for him sometimes. I know he's been through a lot. I keep thinking that he might have been a better guy if some things had gone differently, if he'd had better dice to roll. Maybe he'd be a good dad. Maybe I wouldn't be scared of him all the time.

I'd grown large enough to fight back at about fourteen, but that only means he gets bruises too. He didn't fight me because he wanted to, or because he hated me – or at least I don't think so. He just...his mind is broken somewhere. Sometimes I can feel somewhat sorry for him, but most of the time I just think he's kind of an asshole.

My phone dinged, and I checked the message. Kate wanted to meet outside. I got out of bed and pulled on some joggers and my shoes and headed into the living room. Dad wasn't in there, so he was probably in his room. I snagged my coat and went outside and walked toward the mailboxes.

Kate and I grew up together. She'd been a tomboy when she was younger, but she'd shifted gears once she'd hit puberty. She liked twisting boys around her finger. Not maliciously, not really. She just liked to watch them contort themselves a little bit. She was dating Marco Suarez and hiding the fact from her parents, who were racist and homophobic and watched a TV preacher most of the time. He kept telling them ways to be rich while asking them to send him money.

These religions. They know everything you need to do, have God on their side and always need your money.

“Were you asleep?” Kate asked as I approached.

“Nah. Just contemplating the universe,” I replied.

“Stop. It's not fair when jocks use big words,” she teased.

I smiled at her. “What's going on?”

“Marco,” she said with a sigh. “He wants to go somewhere for our six month. I kind of want to, but you know how I feel about these things.”

“You should go. If nothing else, he's survived you this long,” I said with a grin, and she slapped my arm playfully.

“Jerk.” She tossed her hair. “I mean, six months isn't that much. Why celebrate something so small?”

I shrugged. “Why not celebrate what you can?”

She pushed at the gravel with her shoe. “Just feels like we should be aiming higher.”

“Sure. Aim high, but take the wins when you get them. How are you ever going to appreciate the big things if you can't even smile at the little ones along the way?”

She rolled her eyes. “Kincaide, the philosopher.” A shiver ran through her, and she hooked her arm into mine. “Let's go get bad coffee.”

“I'll drink what you buy,” I told her.

“I got ten bucks out of my parents' worship jar. We're good – can even get a doughnut each.”

I chuckled as we went down the street.

“Where's Heath?” she asked.

“Work. He hates it, but he wants a car so...you know.”

“I want a car. I also want food. He's lucky.”

“Yeah. But just because he didn't go through what we did doesn't mean he'd bad or anything. It's just his perspective.”

“I know,” she said, pretending to pout. “But he gets food and a nice house, he's saving for a car, and he gets you? Like, does he get to have everything?”

I laughed. “It was total luck we got together.” I paused. “But I mean, it was a great bit of luck.”

She hummed. “I had my doubts, but he really does seem to love you.”

“Yeah,” I said, feeling a bit of surprise. “He does. I mean...it feels good.”

“Oh, does he now?” she asked, teasing again.

“Not like that. Get your mind out of the gutter,” I teased back.

“I admit,” she said airily. “He listens to me just enough and doesn't try to come between us, so he has my approval.”

“I know. My boyfriend respects that I had friends and a life before him. How adult,” I deadpanned.

“He's lucky. I'd eat him for lunch if he hurt you,” she said, bumping my shoulder as we walked.

“Eh. He's never even come close to that. In fact...sometimes it's like he had some kind of...advanced knowledge.”

“What do you mean?”

I opened the door for us, and we went into the chain convenience store with cheap coffee and doughnuts wrapped in thin wax paper. We sat at a table with our snack, and I picked up our conversation.

“Heath never assumed you and I dated – and everyone does that.”

“Yeah. Unusual.”

“But it's almost like he knew something about my dad and how he and I...relate. He's super respectful about just being there and never saying anything about my dad.”

“See, I think that's debatable, because why wouldn't he say something about your dad?”

I shrugged. “Maybe because he knows it'd be embarrassing for me. Maybe he sees it and knows all he can do is be there for me? And he is. I eat with his family a few times a week. We do our projects at his house.”

“I'll bet you do,” she said, sticking her tongue out.

“Hey, I'm not saying I don't take some breaks and get some Heath time, but you can't argue with the grades,” I told her. “But...he does a lot of things to get me out of my house without telling me that's what he's doing. He thinks I don't know, that he's so slick. But it's...just a subtle way of taking care of me. You don't do that, go through that effort, if you don't care.” I looked her in the eye. “We both know, most people just don't care, or if they do, it's for one thing. Once they have that one thing, they move on.”

She rolled her eyes and smiled. “Okay, okay! Heath is a good boyfriend to you. I guess you really did get lucky. Of all the guys in our school for you to take a chance on, he turned out pretty good.”


“Well, what?”

I rolled my hand at her. “He turned out pretty well.”

“Yes, professor,” she said with a roll of her eyes.

“Hey. Marco wanting to celebrate six months isn't a bad thing. I mean it might be a little silly, but it's not a bad thing.”

“I suppose,” she agreed. “It's not like going away for a whole weekend.”

I rolled my eyes and smiled. “It's not like we were snuggled in a hotel room, fucking like bunnies. We went to his cousin's house and hung out.”

“You're still sticking to how you guys did nothing. The whole weekend.”

“Hey. Heath is mine. I don't have to tell stories or brag on something intimate,” I said, taking a bite of my doughnut. Heath likes the powdered ones, but I like the jelly-filled. Strawberry or raspberry jelly.

“Can't help it I'm curious,” she replied. “Besides, four guys all dating under the same roof had to have created some sexual tension.”

I shrugged. “Ben and Brady are really, really nice. They're a good couple. If one were single and I were single, yeah there might be something there. But honestly? Heath's the best relationship I've ever had. I've dated some good people, but no one gets me like Heath does. It's almost like...other people were practice. Just getting used to the idea of dating someone. Being responsible for yourself is one thing, but taking someone else into consideration is a whole new level. I don't think other people did that for me – or me for them. Not to the point Heath and I do.” I leaned back and licked the stray sugar from my lips. “I think it's just being content. I'm satisfied, and I don't feel like I need someone else to fill that role for me.”

“So, if Heath does all this for you, what do you do for him?”

I pointed at her. “I see what you're doing there.”

“What?” she asked innocently and ran her tongue along the edge of her doughnut.

I laughed. “Does that do it for Marco?”

She smiled. “He just laughs when I do stuff like that. He's pretty chill.”

Later in my room I did wonder about that question, though. Heath seems like he did homework on me before I asked him out. He's been almost supernatural in knowing me. What do I do for him? I have no money. None. I'm the definition of trailer trash. I give him me. I'm present when we're together. I give him all my attention and affection to try and show him that he means something to me. I don't know if it's enough, but it's what I have.

Heath and I are opposites in a lot of ways. I did athletics to get myself out of the house. I enjoy them, but I partially enjoy them for not being home. Dad didn't come to my games or coach a team; he was home, doing what he does, and I wasn't there to deal with it. I'd grown tall – over six foot – and I'd worked out at school, so I had some muscle to back up my frame. Heath was a few inches shorter, maybe five ten. He had hair you could call light brown or maybe blond trending to brown – take your pick. He wasn't athletic, so he looked very different from the guys I hung out with on the teams and fields.

Heath was soft. I mean that in a good way. He didn't have abs or a stacked chest. He didn't work out, and he wasn't trying to make any teams. He was really nice looking, though maybe not to everyone. There were things about him that screamed basic white boy, and yet he drew me in.

I'll confess I didn't know a lot about him when I decided to ask him out. I'd seen him at school, of course, and he looked good. Not enough to make him stand out from a crowd, but enough that I noticed him. He had a ready smile, and sometimes when he was writing something he'd stop and move the pen tip about an inch over the paper as if he were writing...I think he was just thinking or not sure what to write next. He'd swirl the pen over the paper as if hoping the pen would tell him what to do next.

So at the Milk Bar where I worked, when he came in with his friends I took the chance to check him out a little more than I had, and I liked what I saw. I liked his smile and his laugh. I liked the teasing he did with his friends. I liked how he dressed and how his clothes fit. I liked how he was polite with his order, not treating me like something less than because I was behind a counter.

Kate had been really supportive when I'd told her I thought I was bi, and sometimes she'd tell me I should think about new experiences – usually after I'd broken up with someone. There were a couple of guys in school that I thought were interesting, but something deep, unconscious and unexplainable pulled me toward Heath...so I said to myself if he comes up to the counter by himself, I'll ask him out.

First, I figured if he was by himself, no one could hear me and give me a hard time. It would be the first time I'd even try to ask a guy out. Second, I admit, it was a cop out. There was no reason for him to come up to the counter by himself. They had their orders already, they were nearly done – it was almost like a game with no stakes.

They had gotten up to leave, and I felt a bit of disappointment that the moment – the tension – would be over. Then the strangest thing happened. I felt...slowed. Like I was in syrup or something like that. Heath had stood, his friends had started for the door, but he turned toward me, and then time ran like normal. He was in front of me, and I asked him out – didn't even get the whole question out – and he was already telling me yes, like he'd known it was going to happen.

School was a little different. Some people were ready to give us both shit for dating. No one knew I was bi, so this was a really public way of living – and it sucked. Why should they care? Just because whatever they assumed about me, a person they didn't know, wasn't completely true, they felt it was their business? I didn't fit in their box anymore.

People started to say that's why I'd missed the game winning shot, because I had a limp wrist. It was hard, mentally. Before people had treated me well, even if they didn't know me. Some guys I'd been friendly with through sports were now cool toward me. It was a real eye opener. I'd only had athletics when it came to popularity at school, but it was a real lesson on how fake popularity can be.

The worst part was people saying I was actually gay all along. Not that, for me, being called gay was bad; more that they were trying to erase the other part of me. I’d legitimately dated girls and been there for the relationship. Like so many other things in high school, they just hadn't lasted. But now people thought I had been using those girls or that they were just a phase. It was tiring, and I had no energy to fight those ideas. If things ended with Heath, a woman would be an option for me when I was ready to get back into that kind of thing. I wasn't looking past Heath, though. I was in this.

Heath started to text when he'd gotten home from work, and we kept it up for a while. It was always comforting that he reached out when he was free. It made my day better when he told me he was just thinking about me. It's almost like he knows I'm not the guy people think – he touches inside and out. Fact is I'm kind of a mess internally, but you don't show that to the world. Too many people waiting to eat you alive. Too many want to bring you down, discount and discard you.

Not Heath.

Saturday morning I woke up shivering. I picked up my phone and saw the battery was at half charge. Shit. I bet Dad didn't pay the power bill. They had laws about how cold it was relating to if the power company could turn someone off. Maybe the day before had gotten up high enough so they ran around shutting things off? I got up and pulled sweats on before going to relieve myself. In the kitchen I grabbed milk and cereal and put them on the table. I ate quickly, starting to shiver with the cold milk in me – great idea, I know.

I could go to Heath's. I could tell them our power had gone out – no need to mention the bill. I could get a shower and then get some Heath time in. God, he's so good to me. As I set my bowl in the sink, I heard a thump against our front door. It wasn't loud or sharp, just a soft 'whump'. Intrigued, I went to the front door and opened it, the wind almost yanking the door from my grip. I looked around, noting that the next trailer over had their outside light on, so it wasn't something in the park in general. I jumped when something fell against my foot. I looked down to see a long cardboard box. Curious, I picked it up and set it inside before getting the door again and shutting the winter wind outside.

I figured someone dropped it at the wrong trailer, so I checked the label. Huh. Addressed to me. Something twinged in my chest. I bet Heath had gotten me something. I headed back to my room before my dad got up and saw I had something he might be able to sell. With the door closed, I put the box on my bed and picked up my phone. I had a waiting message that Heath had gone to work, but he'd be out by one and wanted to see me.

I never considered myself to be a 'soft and gooey center' kind of guy. I'd had girlfriends who wanted what Heath was giving me, and I'll be honest – I wasn't the best at it. I'd wrestled with the idea of doing things like that even if I wasn't feeling it, just because they liked it, but wasn't I being fake? I hated that idea.

I set my phone aside and opened the box, which had air packets to cushion a colorful box with some neon lettering announcing 'Retron: Forge A New Reality!' Huh. A computer of some kind? Maybe you had to assemble it? We'd been talking a little about where to go for college or jobs, and I'd been thinking a little about something to do with computers.

I set the packing box aside and opened the actual box, sliding the thing out and tossing aside the Styrofoam wedges that had held it firm. It didn't look like much, and it didn't look like it needed assembly. It seemed to be just a really unusual keyboard. No function keys. No keypad on the side, which was a big one for me. I'd always been impressed by people that could type quickly and accurately, including when I'd seen people entering numbers with a keypad. Silly, maybe, but I liked it – the rapid-fire noise of the keys being struck.

Looking close, I didn’t see an 'Enter' key. Instead, there were 'Insert', 'Delete' and 'Execute'.

“Heath, what were you thinking?” I said aloud. I looked the case over, trying to find a place to plug it in – not that I had power – but didn't see anything. There was a sticker that you find on a lot of old electronics – a seal that says if the seal is broken you void the warranty. The seal had some glue off to one side, like it had been replaced at some point. Something refurbished?

I propped myself up in bed and put the thing on my lap. There was a big clear red button in the corner that had a crystalline pattern inside it. I figured it looked like a power button, so I pushed it. Fans whirred to life, and the button lit up with a deep reddish-orange glow. Something slid up from the back and slowly unfolded to show...a screen? A folding screen? It was thinner than a phone – how did they do that? How did Heath afford it? Even refurbished, it had to have been really expensive.

I thought for a moment of boxing it back up and telling Heath to return it but was distracted as the screen burst into life with an image of a snake eating its tail. It began to spin, faster and faster until it exploded into a shower of sparks and left behind just a blinking cursor.

Huh. I stroked a few keys on the board, and the characters appeared on the screen. I wondered how it was powered. I deleted the random letters I'd entered and looked at the screen. What now? Feeling a little silly, I smiled and typed: My boyfriend loves me. I hit 'Insert' but nothing happened. Hmm. I guess 'Execute' might make sense as a command, so I pressed that. My text disappeared and a new line appeared.

Duplicate File Found.

Huh. What does that mean? I shivered a bit and my fingers felt a bit cold. “Fucking winter. Supposed to be over already,” I muttered.

With a small grin I typed: My room is warm. I hit 'Execute'.

How stupid. What does this thing even do? What was the difference between 'Insert' and 'Execute'? Where had Heath even found this thing? Did he know how useless it was? I stretched over and snagged the box, looking for some directions, but nothing. Tossing it aside, I felt a little warm and pulled my sweatshirt off, but as I went to toss it aside, I stopped.

What the...? Warm? I looked down and flexed my fingers, no longer cold.

What the what? I stood up, carrying the computer-thing with me, and opened my bedroom door, only to feel a rush of cold air. I closed the door.

“What the hell? My room is warm, but the house is....” I looked at the computer and shook my head. “No way.”

But sure as I was standing there in a tee shirt and sweatpants at a comfortable temperature...way. Yes, way. I put the machine on my shitty particle board desk and took a step back.

“Okay, Riley. Deep breath, and let's think for a second...” I crossed my arms over my chest, went back to my bedroom door and opened it to the house – yep, much colder air. Closing the door, I went back to the device and just stared, but nothing was really processing in my brain.

Okay, one thing was. My dad was going to try and take this, and he didn't know what it really was. I wasn't sure I did, but I knew it was dangerous. Wonderfully dangerous. Ideas began to hit me – better places to live. A car. Boyfriend by my side. I wanted good things for me, yes, but I wanted them with Heath. Should I call him? He was at work. I could type that he wasn't at work, but what if he got fired and that's why he wasn't at work? What if I got him fired because of what I asked for?

Fuck. This was the Monkey's Paw.

I ran my fingers through my hair and tried to make a plan. Okay. Number one, have to retain control of this so – where's dad? I headed out of my bedroom and crossed through the chilly living room area and through the kitchen to the door that led to his room. This place might have been neat when new, I guess. A bathroom in the master bedroom and a small one on my end of the house. Two bedrooms on my end with a living room and kitchen with dining area separating it from the master end of the house. Trailer trash chic my dad called it.

I carefully opened his door. He was lying in bed, not moving. Well, that wasn't true – he was breathing. I closed his door and headed back to my room. Once inside, I leaned back against my closed door. Okay. I needed to think. I needed a shower. I needed my dad to not steal this thing. I crossed the room and looked at the device again. With some fear, like it would zap me for touching it, I started to type.

My dad will stay asleep while I take a long, hot shower.

I hit 'Insert' and the text blinked for a moment and disappeared. Well. Did it work? I needed to test it somehow. I thought for a moment on how I could test the 'Insert' function so I'd have some idea if what I'd put in would work. Well, simple thing – I'm broke. So how about ten bucks in my wallet? I quickly entered the command and hit insert. Then it took me a minute to find my wallet, but there was a worn ten-dollar bill in the sleeve that usually kept dead bugs and dust bunnies.

Hot damn.

I let out a breath. Okay. Well. Let's not take chances. I pushed the power button. The screen folded down, and the light went out. I slid the thing into the box and slid the box under my bed for the moment, then went to the bathroom. I stripped down and hopped in, the air still chilly outside my room. The water came on warm – warmer than normal – and then grew to a nice temperature that was unheard of in my trailer.

I soaped up and got warm under the steady spray, enjoying a shower like I've never done at home. Showers in our house were strictly limited – five minutes at most, because the temperature dropped exponentially the longer it ran. Not today. In fact, after I'd washed my hair I just stood and let the water run over me, feeling my body grow to a comfortable temperature and enjoying the caress of the water on my skin.

After toweling off, I dashed back into my room, trying to avoid the cold air as much as possible and get back to the warmth of my room. I got dressed and sat on my bed for a moment. This was a chance. A chance not everyone got. I knew I had to grab it. People say money can't buy happiness, but it does buy heating oil, a car to get around in and food in your stomach. Sometimes that's the same thing.

I was leaning over to pull the box out from under my bed when I heard his heavy footsteps. Shit! If dad felt the air in my room, there would be questions I couldn't answer. I raced from my bed and out into the living room. He was at the sink, filling the coffee pot, but then he set it down on the counter.

“Shit. No power, no coffee.”

Without stopping to think I asked, “Want me to walk down to the convenience store?”

He looked down at the sink for a minute, long enough that I had time to think. I'd never offered to do that before. Did he think – or know – something was up? Would he search my room if I left? Had he ever? Yes, he had. I don't know why. I'm not sure he did. What would he do if he found the machine? Could I stop him?

He reached up over the sink into the cupboard and pulled down a small glass bottle, uncapped it and took a swig. He looked absently out the window, and I began to wonder if he'd even heard me.

“I think I'll just go back to bed. Stay warm. Have to figure out what's up with the electricity. Maybe call the power company.” He paused. “Yeah. I'll give them a call.”

“Okay,” I said quietly.

He turned, taking the bottle, and went back to his room, closing the door behind him. Dad likes to drink alone.

I let out a breath and headed back to my room, the hair on my arms standing up from the cold – and maybe from the fear of what he might do next. I wanted to bust that machine out, but now that he was awake...I was afraid he'd come in before it was done booting up and I could put something in, something that would maybe help us both.

If you'd asked me even last week what I wanted in life, it wouldn't have been that hard. Some steady cash. A decent car. More time with Heath, so I could really get to know him. Our relationship was only a few months old, but it was so good. So good. He really cared and it...it inspired me to be better. Now? Money. Nice car. Maybe I could help Kate. Maybe I would have some privacy to take my relationship with Heath to a different level.

I had that ability now. I had a silver bullet. I could wish my dad well again. All those missed opportunities for counseling, housing, subsidies to make ends meet. Maybe even wish he'd love me or at least not hit me.

I could take my boyfriend to dinner. I could not be afraid or ashamed to bring him to my home. I wanted a vacation on the beach with Heath, to really spend time together. To know him far more than I do now. For us to have a real future to look toward to, eliminating the worst things in our way. I felt so good with him...so few people give me peace. We could go for coffee anytime and have those endless, meaningless talks that somehow still meant everything.

I could do a lot of things that were important to me...but.

It was easy to get wrapped up in wishing. Wishing for things that were important to me, but what did Heath want? What did my dad want? What could I do for Kate? Did I have a responsibility to try and make things better for others besides my inner circle? End world hunger? What were the limits?

It was a lot to hold in my head. But...I had an idea. Maybe solving the world's problems wasn't in my control, maybe things are more complex than I realize sometimes. I mean, I know they are, but still. How much luck would it take to make things be fair for people everywhere? What does fair look like? If I, for instance, said there was enough food for everyone, well, there is. But some people can't afford it. Some people hoard things. So maybe...I start smaller.

I texted Heath and started to get myself ready to go out. As I did, I noticed the shipping box from the machine – I'd put the machine inside its colorful box under my bed. I broke it down and shimmed it between my bed and the wall. Then I went into the bathroom and brushed my teeth and did up my hair. Satisfied, I put on a pair of pants that I know Heath likes on me and grabbed a shirt that made my eyes pop. Checking my phone, I saw Heath had tried to be funny. His response to if he was busy after work was 'Yes'. But the on the next line he said he had boyfriend time scheduled.

I told him I'd meet him at his job. With a little bit of nerves running up and down my spine I got on the floor and pushed the machine box to the back and then moved a few things in front of it. I was probably being paranoid but...I'd rather be paranoid and still have the thing where I'd left it than confident and have my dad break or sell it.

I closed my door, grabbed my coat and popped a beanie on my head before heading out. It was damn cold, colder than it had any right to be this time of year. As I left, my thoughts were dominated by the things I could do with that machine. I couldn't help myself. The possibilities seemed endless. This must be what it feels like when you win the lottery, except I've also seen stories about those same winners being broke in a few years.

This would be different, though. This...I wouldn't tell people about.

My phone buzzed with a video call; Kate must be bored.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Going to see Heath. He gets out in about ten minutes. My house is freezing. I think my dad forgot to pay the bill again.”

“I thought they weren't allowed to shut power off in the winter?”

“I think it goes by temperature or calendar date or something. All I can tell you is it was cold in there.”

“I bet. So...going to get Heath to warm you up?” she asked, teasing.

“Damn right I am. Benefit of having a boyfriend,” I replied.

“No doubt.”

“Hey, Kate,” I said slowly. “Weird question. If you could have one wish-”

“Venice. I want an apartment with some kind of cash flow where I can just live there and learn Italian and ride the gondolas.” She grinned. “Imagine the fresh food. The architecture, the history – the Italian men.”

I laughed. “What about Marco?”

She sighed. “He's a keeper. I'd take him with me,” she admitted. “Plus, this all has the advantage of being nowhere near my parents. My mom took money from me again. I'm like...if you come to me and explain, show me how budgets don't work and how come I have to pay for things – or you steal from me – to cover your beer and cigarettes...I don't know, Rile.”

I nodded. “I'm at Heath's work. Talk to you later?”

“Okay. Byeee! Hellooo to your boyfriend!” She hung up, and I smiled a little. She'd gotten in the middle of my relationship a touch at first, but Heath won her over just by being independent and taking care of me. Those are her biggest things – if you can't stand up for yourself, you sure as hell won't do it for someone else.

I went into the front end of the grocery store Heath worked in and went through the line to get a pack of gum. It was nice to have when food was scarce. You could chew and fool your body into thinking it was satisfying like a meal should be. That and lots of water.

Arms wrapped me from behind, and I smiled as I looked over my shoulder. “Oh. Hi there.”

“Ugh. Hello. Glad this shift is over,” he said, moving around to follow me through the line. I paid, and we left, but we got no farther than the parking lot before he grabbed me in a tight hug. “I've been thinking about this since you said you'd meet me,” he confessed.

I hugged him just as hard. “Oh yeah? You needed a hug?”

“Ugh. Boyfriend time is what I need.” He broke the hug and took my hand. “Let's get a coffee. Why is it still so cold?”

“I don't know, but it's past time for spring to start,” I replied. He told me a few things that had happened on his shift to make conversation on the way to get coffee, and I listened to him. I watched him as he spoke, gesturing with his hands on occasion for emphasis.

He smiled at me. “What? Am I talking too much?”

I shook my head and smiled back. “No. I just like listening to your stories.”

He smiled again and rolled his eyes. We got our coffee and sat down to enjoy it and warm up before we walked to his house.

“So, I'm starting to look at used cars online. I'm hoping if I do it enough in front of my dad, he'll offer to chip in,” he said with a devilish grin. “Cars I'd want are way out of my price range. I reached out to my sibs, and they all said Dad helped out with their first cars, so I'm not sure why he's dragging his feet.” He paused. “Maybe it's because I'm so liberal and he's such a fossil.”

I almost choked on my coffee.

He smiled. “What? It's true. Actually, I don't think I'm that liberal. But basic human decency seems like it's missing from his makeup. Oh my God! Maybe my mom had an affair and he's not really my dad?”

I burst out laughing as he grinned and sipped his coffee. “Heath. What would you want if you could have one wish?”

“Oh. Hmm. How big is this wish?”

I shrugged. “Biggest wish.”

He opened his mouth and then closed it and looked away through the glass into the parking lot. “Uh. Wow. Lots of things just jumped into my head.”

“Anything stand out?”

The corner of his mouth turned up, but it looked more sad or embarrassed than happy. “I'm really happy right now.” He moved his gaze to me. “There are things I'd like to have, but I'm so happy all I can think about is us. How lucky I was that you, out of everyone at school, liked me back. What are the odds that I'd even be in the same school with you and that I'd be lucky enough that you noticed me and that...I just want it to keep happening. I just want...I mean, I know it's not ideal. No cars. We don't have our own house or apartment or a dog. But...meeting me after work? Walking over to get coffee? Coming over to binge a few episodes and cuddle? I'm all about that being my future.”

It was kind of overwhelming. I've had some girls fall that hard for me, but I hadn't felt the same connection – not for long, anyway. Sometimes the 'new' wore off kind of quick, and what you were left with was like polishing a turd, as my dad would say.

“So, if you could have that wish...?”

He rolled his eyes, and his face twisted into an embarrassed smile. “Just more of us. This. Let's go to college and dance all night somewhere and get breakfast at a 24-hour diner.” He looked down at his coffee for a minute and then back up to me. “I just want to experience all that with you. I know, I do this in my head all the time – we're married and have three kids and two dogs and have jobs that let us do the things we want to. Busy, happy lives.”

Softly I said, “I like that.”


“I like that you see this as something that lasts.”

He smiled, though it looked like he was trying not to.

“So, no thoughts about ending world hunger? Homelessness?”

He blew out a breath. “Complex stuff. I mean you can build facilities and pass laws and build housing, but if people don't want that – like refuse mental health treatment or just have this aversion to housing and being a member of a society...can you really take away their choice? Their will? I mean, yeah, there are probably situations where you have to or where they are just misinformed or haven't found the people they fit with. But really, with all the diversity out there, there have to be some people that just...don't like other people.” He paused. “Plus, there's greed. You put money in, and plenty of people take money out that has nothing to do with what you were trying to help with.”

I thought about that, humming in agreement. “But we should still make an effort, right?”

“I mean, yeah! The question is, how? Like, if you throw money at something, you have people that steal it for themselves, you have to pay millions of dollars for a CEO whose only real job is to fund raise. If it's homelessness you're working on, you need places for people to live. You need help for them to stay in those homes, like mental health care or prescription help or jobs or job training. I did a paper on this last year, and it's really discouraging how complicated some of these questions can be.”

I leaned back in my chair. “Huh. Yeah, good point.”

“What's got you thinking about changing the world?”

I shrugged. “I just wonder how much is relatively easy to fix and how much is just...humanity in general. We can't fix it because it's who we are.”

“That's probably a big part of it,” he said, bobbing his head. “I mean, look at your dad. He doesn't want help. He has you, arguably a good person – smart, athletic, not in trouble, when you sure could be. But instead of appreciating any of that, he doesn't want help. You can't force it on him. For all we know he has good reasons. Maybe he's punishing himself, and you along with him, because of something he has guilt about? Who really knows?”

“Huh. I never thought about that,” I said quietly. “I mean, I've wondered, but he doesn't talk.”

“Plus, if you ask this wish question to different people, you'll get tons of different answers. Some people will ask for something small or righteous in the hope it leads to them being rewarded for not being greedy. But like, if you ask Jess, she'd say she wants to read people's minds, because she's just that nosy. Finn would probably want an endless buffet where he never gets full or fat.”

I burst out laughing. “The boy likes to eat.”

“So, what would you wish for?” he asked.

I sighed. “So many things it makes my brain hurt. Trying to narrow it down, I start thinking about the bigger things – like if I had a wish like that, wouldn't it be selfish to use it just on myself?”

He hummed and sat back. “Yes and no. You have to take care of yourself. But I hear you – if you could make a big impact on a lot of people, you'd have to consider that.”

I nodded. “Kate said she'd want to live in Venice. Learn the language.”

“Achievable dreams,” Heath replied. “What about what you'd want?”

Nerves flared inside me, but I pushed forward. “I...really like us. I like who I am with you, how we fit together. I think...I'd just really like to keep that vibe going.”

He grinned. “Maybe have a life together? Travel? Have a dog and a home?”

I smiled back. “One on a beach. And yes, definitely a dog.”

We tossed our cups out and headed over to his house. His mom told us to keep it down since his dad was napping, but she says it in such a wholesome way you just know she thinks boys will roughhouse if you turn your back on them, not that we're making out.

It's different making out with a guy. Some girls I've dated had bigger chests, so kissing a guy leaves that out. Changes the angle of the kissing or something, I think. There's sometimes a bit of scruff on one of us, so there's that. The feel of a boner pressed right beside yours. One thing I really liked about kissing or making out with Heath was that he was present for all of it. He was there for the kissing, he never gave me some tiny peck like it was expected before we went our separate ways, like in the car before class. He always leaned in, at least a little, and made each kiss count.

I guess that's just one of the little things that make this relationship so much different from my previous ones. It's not so much the body, even though I like that; it's the attention to detail – to me. To be conscious that I have feelings and that he cares about that. I'm saying this badly. I've dated, and I've had some good relationships, and they all feel good to start. Over time, a few months maybe, things have calmed down. It's no longer new. Things like kisses turn into small pecks before dashing away. Things become...common.

Heath seems to get that these things carry weight, at least for me. I think they do for him, too. If you're going to kiss, you do it right – and he does it right.

He broke the kiss and pressed his cheek to mine, lying on top of me like his intention was to sleep.

“I want to tell you a dumb story,” he said into my ear. I shivered from the air passing by.


“It's more...like a dream. Or something I think I remember, but if I think about it too hard it disappears. Like a dream after you wake up. The more you try to grab hold and think about it, the more it disappears.”

“Okay, I get that,” I replied and started to rub his back.

“It came back to me a little when you asked about a wish, and I almost feel like I had that. Like I could wish for stuff. When I...dream or...remember or whatever, I can think of a couple of things.” He paused. “They seem small, but maybe like you were saying, you think of the small things first. Personal things. Then you get these bigger thoughts. I mean, mine didn't get as big as yours – don't read into that.”

I chuckled and reached down to squeeze his butt. He jumped and laughed, rolling to one side and snuggling into me. “So, this dream or memory?”

“Like I said, it's really fuzzy. But I have this sense, like, of getting a car. Clearing up acne. Asking...for you to be my boyfriend.” He paused. “I...feel like, sometimes, there's this whisper of whatever that was – dream, daydream, I don't know. But it echoes in my head sometimes. The day you asked me out I was going to leave with Jess and Finn. I was standing up to leave, but I felt like I'd...done that before? Like I had a choice, a chance I hadn't taken. I was at a place where I could choose a new path, and that path led to you.”


He nodded his head against me. “I sometimes wonder, like when I'm really tired or like now, when I'm lying with you and just breathing you in...how much of life is really just luck? That having you in my life like this was a matter of walking over to you at the right moment? How much of life is just getting a chance to choose something else?”

Thinking of the machine under my bed I asked, “So maybe it's not so much fate but the choices we make – or don't – that decide where we go? That we have more power than we think, but there's still more luck than we realize.”

“Like alternate realities,” he said quietly. “Somewhere else I didn't have you. I walked out that door with my friends, and you never asked me out. It's really mind bending to think about.”

“Yeah.” I rubbed his back, and shortly he was breathing gently, having fallen into a light sleep. I enjoyed the feel of him when he drifted off. His body was so relaxed, a warm living weight that was so comforting. I ran my fingers lightly up his neck and into his hair, gently massaging his scalp and enjoying the feel of him, the silky strands falling around my fingers. I thought about what he'd said, and the thing was, I felt like that was familiar somehow. Like there was an echo of him having left with his friends and I'd not asked him out, just as he'd said. It wasn't really something I could wrap my hands around, but just a feeling. An idea of a memory.

I heard someone coming up the stairs, so I woke Heath. His folks are nice enough when they don't know about us, but I'm not so sure how they'd react to seeing us together. I mean together together. We got up from the bed just as a knock came at the door and his dad poked his head in.

“Hey, guys – dinner's on. You staying, Riley?”

“Sure. Thanks, Mr. Miller.”

Dinner was nice. They make good food, way better than what I'd have had at home. After dinner Heath told me not to forget my notebook in his room, which was code for 'come upstairs so I can kiss you goodnight'.

I walked home quickly, the night air still abnormally cold for this time of year. With the sun down it just got that much worse out. As I walked, my conversation with Heath swirled through my brain. The ideas about large and small changes, about how the bigger things usually have more than one cause or many moving pieces. Maybe the answer was that you had to start smaller before you grabbed for big things; so you understood how things worked, first. At home I found dad in the living room, snoring lightly on the couch. The house was still cold, and he was wrapped in a blanket. A liquor bottle stood silent sentry beside the couch.

I went into my room and pulled the box out. I turned it on and thought carefully about what I'd need to type first to make sure I got something done. I don't know why I was so paranoid about my dad doing something crazy, but it was definitely there. I've learned to listen to my gut when it comes to my dad.

The screen finished unfolding, and I set to work.

My house is warm.

I hit 'Insert' and the cursor blinked twice and the words disappeared. I glanced toward the door to the living room and typed:

My dad will not find this computer.

Once more I hit 'Insert' and the cursor blinked, but nothing happened. I thought for a moment. I tried 'Execute' but had the same result. I deleted it. What was wrong with that line? Was it the request itself? Wouldn't it tell me? I thought again and then glanced at the box the thing came in.

I looked down at the machine and said, “Maybe you don't think you're a computer, huh?” I typed:

My dad will not find this Retron.

I hit 'Insert', and the cursor blinked twice and disappeared. Okay, so this little device has an ego. But I felt a bit better about my ability to not lose this to my dad pawning it. I thought for a moment about the conversations I'd had about my dad, then leaned forward and typed again.

My dad will have an honest, polite conversation about why he is who he is.

I hit 'Insert' and the cursor blinked twice and disappeared. I heard something fall in the living room, and I hit the power button, wishing the screen would fold faster. I stuffed the box under my bed and rubbed my hands on my thighs before heading out to the living room.

“Fuck,” my dad said, holding his head in his hands.

“Headache?” I asked, cautious.

“Fuck do you think?” he grumbled. “Get me some Advil.”

“Okay.” I grabbed the bottle of pills from his bathroom, though no water – he ate these like candy. I handed him the bottle, and he accepted it wordlessly. My heart was hammering more than normal when around him. My dad wasn't really violent, but he seemed like he was always on the edge of being violent. Well, that's not true. He is violent, but you can usually see it coming. Mostly. His tone was usually gruff, his praise was more along the lines of 'at least you didn't fuck it up that badly', and honestly...I wasn't entirely sure why I even wanted to know at this point – why he was like this, why he treated me like he did, just...why? Did I really care anymore? I must, I guess, if I was asking some strange machine to make my father talk to me.


He popped the bottle open and shook out three. Tossed them back and dry swallowed. Shook the jar and then put the cap back on.


He set the bottle down between his feet and looked at the floor. “What?”

“Why...?” Why what? Why do you hate me? Why won't you get help? Why are you in a hole so deep you never want to try to climb out?

He sighed, a resigned sound. “Yeah.” He cleared his throat. “Why. Why...everything. Right?”

“Um. Yeah.”

He stayed silent for long enough that I thought maybe he wasn't going to answer, but then he started to speak. “Your mom used to be this pretty thing that danced down at this place near the edge of town. She didn't dance for money, she just liked to dance. We'd met up there a few times. Nothing serious, but not nothing either. I shipped out. Got a letter that you were growing in her.” He grunted. “Bit of a surprise. Had some time to think about it. Got myself to the point I was looking forward to having someone to look after. Maybe do better'n my folks.”

I squatted down, unable to look away. He'd never, never opened up like this.

His fingers fiddled with the top of the liquor bottle but didn't open it. “About two months before I was due to have my tour up, everything went to shit. I mean everything. We were out on patrol, and nothing went to spec. I didn't know it, but our squad lead had a side thing going. Been doing this girl one town over. Oh, he was a real piece of work – promised to marry her. She and the baby would be raised in the states. The girl had stars in her eyes while he was dicking her.”

I sat down, legs crossed and focused on him.

“Only...he was married, see. So, when she started saying things about how they had to get married before she started to show or her father – you know. So, he set up this whole thing, got us all lost in the dark. Wild goose chase.” He shook his head. “Back up. We were on patrol. He started saying he'd heard something, and he was saying it enough that I think guys were starting to think they heard it, too. Of course, it was nothing – just bullshit. But then...there was gunfire. And the guy next to me was shooting, and I turned and put my muzzle where he was firing, and I let loose.” He closed his eyes. “It was chaos. Chaos. I was so scared. I didn't know where the enemy was coming from. Comms were all fucked up with guys yelling over each other.”

I licked my lips, but stayed quiet.

“It was the family,” he said in a whisper. “We killed an entire family. The family of the girl he was banging. He decided to lead us into this...whatever. He knew there would be some of her family guarding things – everyone has an AR and a spare in their asshole. So, when the first shots were fired, it was guaranteed there would be return fire. Then it was just...chaos.”

“Were you okay?” I asked quietly.

He snorted and shook his head. “I'd just killed children. I was a murderer. This wasn't an enemy soldier or even some half-assed civilian combatant. They were a family asleep in their bed with people out patrolling the night to keep them safe.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “And we murdered them. They were terrified.”

“But...you were tricked. What happened to that guy? The guy in charge?”

Dad licked his lips. “He got off easy. He died right there.” Dad looked up at me. “I put one through his head.”

I sat in stunned silence.

Eventually he broke his gaze and looked back down to the floor. “I came home. The whole thing got hushed up – no one likes stories about soldiers murdering innocent people.” He heaved a sigh. “One day your mom up and drops you in my lap and said she was going to Arizona to shoot porn for a living and...never saw her again.” He licked his lips. “So here I was. Murderer. Killer of kids. Babies in their beds. And in my hands is this little life that I didn't deserve.”

Anger began to simmer behind my eyes.

“But, Dad...what about me?”

He kept his head down.

“Dad. You had me. I still needed a dad. Why didn't you get help? Why wasn't I enough?”

He lifted his head and brushed his long, lank hair from his face. Strands caught in his scruff. “You think I have an answer? I don't. Just a long...floating, swirling down the damn drain.” He shook his head. “I don't really feel anything anymore. I think...I think they all burned out that night.” He paused. “Sometimes I think they're more like rotten teeth. Sometimes something flares up, but it's just pain. I don't have anything to give to anyone, not even me.”

He stood unsteadily and turned from me, making his way to his room and closing the door behind him.

I sat on the floor and tried to sort through what he'd just said. In a way it explained many things, but I don't understand the idea of your emotions completely deserting you. I think he was burying any that came up – including maybe guilt – by his drinking. Even though I had an answer, it wasn't fulfilling. And what could I do about it? Could I change his past? He'd said he'd wanted me, was in the head space to have raised me. If I changed that...wouldn't life be better for us both?

I stood up with some resolve and headed for my room, but as I closed the door I started to wonder. What about Kate? She and I had leaned on each other so hard here; what if I wasn't here? What about what I had with Heath? With a sigh I shook my head. I had to help my dad, but if this machine could really change things...then I had to make sure I did my best to correct what I could and try to write in enough to be prepared for anything.

I pulled the Retron from its box and placed it on the seat of my chair while I sat on my bed. It turned on, and I watched just as entranced as I had the first time as the screen unfolded, the snake eating its tail spun and exploded into sparks on the screen, and then just the blinking cursor.

“You're trouble, aren't you?” I asked the device. “If you can really change the world...how much? And how much is too much? If I change something, what about the butterfly effect? Will you stop me from destroying the world or is that your goal?” I shook my head. “I should pour water on you. But...seems like if you have a chance to grab the wheel before the car goes over the edge, you do it.”

There were too many ways things could go wrong. I knew that. If I put down that the family my dad helped to kill had lived, then this thing could technically meet that but leave them out hurting others for revenge. Or that my dad wasn't part of the group that killed them, but he had the guilt from not being there or some...stupid circumstance I couldn't foresee. So, I'd do the best I could and hope that what happened was close to what I was trying to do.

As my fingers moved over the keyboard I felt a weight on me, a feeling of...reality resting on my mind.

The raid my father was on never happened. The family wasn't killed.

I pressed 'Insert', but nothing happened. “Right. I'm changing it, not adding it,” I muttered and hit 'Execute'.

The cursor blinked twice and disappeared. I didn't want to lose my train of thought. I had no idea how these changes would happen – or if they really would.

Kate Plumber is my best friend and Heath Miller is my boyfriend.

I hit 'Insert', but the screen returned an error – duplicate file found. “I guess that means whatever changed didn't change that,” I said under my breath. It felt good that they would still love me, despite a change in reality.


The tiny hairs on my arms and neck were stirring and a shiver ran up my spine. It was the oddest feeling, like something – maybe a thin layer of skin, like when you get sunburnt – was peeling off my body. All over. I looked down at my exposed skin, but didn't really see a difference. My room, though, felt familiar and decidedly foreign. I had a small desk with some electronics on it, but I didn't know what they were from. None of them were whole, just exposed circuit boards and stuff, like someone had tinkered and moved on. I stood and walked to the desk, carefully placing the Retron on a small space where it wouldn't fall.

I glanced out of my window at the trailer park and was a little surprised that it looked like it was morning. Frost was still on windshields and the scrubby, brown grass. There was a squeak as my door opened, and a woman I both recognized and didn't pushed in. Her hair was similar to my own coloring, but that was the only thing that had any connection to me that I could see.

“Oh hey, look at that! You got one of them to work, huh?” She sucked on a vape and walked over to the bed – my bed – and sat down. “Look, I know we've kind of talked about this stuff a little, but we have to get serious.”

I looked at her, that odd feeling of knowing her and that she was a stranger to me filling my being.

She sucked on her vape again. “Look. I always knew your father was a little off, okay? He was never practical – I mean, hello? Joining the military isn't the smartest move. It was for us, being that he has to have insurance – at least for you – but now that he's off doing whatever thing he's doing – and you notice he didn't show up here, right? No checking up on us or anything? Yeah.” She sucked on her vape and crossed her leg, knee over knee and started to bounce her foot. “So, you know I decided to start a little on the late side, but it kept money in the account for a while. It's a tough industry, but they always want new faces. I was going to suggest you and Kate – big market for that. But now with this whole bisexual thing you have going on, you should really talk to Heath. You could both make a lot of money, and I can help you get started. Daily posting and filming at least once or twice a week to keep the views coming in. You build a fan base, and you can use that for a lot of things. Travel. Car. House.”

I frowned a little as I looked at her.

She took another pull on the vape and waved the thing around. “You know. Porn is the way to go. Use the assets you have until you can get more assets.”

I stared at her for a moment and then asked, slowly, “You think I should record having sex with Kate and Heath for money?”

She perked up a bit. “A three way is a unique thing! You could make a real splash starting out with that.”

I was shocked. Not necessarily at the thought of making porn, but that it was being suggested by this woman – my mother? Hey, I grew up poor. People like this idea of the 'noble poor' who have pride and make the best out of everything and are honest despite having nothing. They wear clean but worn things, proud that it's their best. Making what they can out of a lousy situation. That's mostly for people who are comfortable. When you have food, heat and stuff, you don't worry about what you'd do to get that stuff when you're desperate. Stealing is a definite option. Doing dishonest things to get ahead or to just get through the day is legitimate.

Society is a construct. Morals can be flexible, depending on how hungry you are.

It did seem to hit a little wrong, though, to have my mother...that felt correct. My mother telling me to get started with posting pictures of me and my friend and boyfriend for cash was more than a little weird. Beyond pragmatic. Not to mention Heath and I...it hadn't been that long. We weren't there yet. Yet this conversation only left me confused, not upset. I had the Retron. It was time to tweak things.

“Well. I can talk to them,” I said, trying to move her along.

“That's the thing to do. I can always explain what's needed to them, so they understand. Money's money.” She uncrossed her legs and stood up. “Okay, well I'm glad we settled that.”

“Uh. Just...why isn't dad here?” I asked, trying to understand more about what I found myself in so I could try and tweak things with my next attempt.

“Oh.” She paused and pulled on her vape again. “He never wanted to be a dad. He kept up insurance and went on about his life. You know? I thought maybe once he'd gotten out of the service he'd want to...I don't know. See what he'd been missing. But he's happier the way things are.” She shrugged. I didn't respond, and she turned and headed out of the room, the door not quite closing behind her, catching on the uneven floor.

I looked around the room again, a little curious about the electronic junk I'd apparently taken apart to see how it worked. I opened the Retron again and waited for the screen to unfold, thinking. I'd thought by making that family okay, that my dad not having that experience would have made him into a better father. Instead, he'd been absent, but somehow my mother had stuck with me – but was now looking to make money, literally, off my ass. Of course, I only had her word for what my father thought or had done.

What does it say about me that I have these weird ass, horrible people for parents? Answer: Nothing. My athletics had kept me far enough from my dad that he'd not poisoned me. As bad as Kate's parents were – bigots – they'd kept me on the right path, checking on my homework and making sure I was eating, even if they didn't have food to spare. They'd make sure my dad went to get groceries...I paused. Had they? That thought seemed...diaphanous.

The snake eating its tail whirled on the screen and exploded into sparkling pixels, and the cursor sat blinking, ready to change reality.

“You like specifics, my friend,” I said to the machine. “So, I'm going to do what I can.”

My parents are nice and care about me.

I hit 'Insert' and the machine returned an error – Incompatible with program. Huh. I tried the same thing and hit 'Execute', but got the same result. I sat back in my chair for a moment to think, but my phone rang, and I looked down to see my boyfriend's face looking up at me.

“Hey, Babe,” I answered. “What are you doing?”

“I was going to game. But...my mom had a list of chores, and my dad is being loud, so I'm kind of miserable. You?”


“I'm thinking you should come over here and think. You can lie down with me and think. I can nap on your chest while you think. What do you think?”

I smiled. “What about the chores? Won't your mom get pissed?”

He sighed. “Give me a half hour. Okay, maybe an hour. But then come over?”

“Love to,” I said softly.

“Okay. So...hey, are you okay?”

“Yep. See you soon.”

“Okay,” he said, sounding unconvinced but letting it slide. I hung up and thought for a moment. Why hadn't I made a move on him in bed yet? Who makes the rules about when any of that happens? Was it because he was a guy? Or because of the eventuality that he also had a dick and may want to put it inside me? Did I want that? Okay, sex with my boyfriend can wait. I need to get this reality thing worked out first. So, my desire to make my parents be nice and care about me was a no go. I guess you could make the argument my mom cared about me in this...version of reality.

It kind of comes back to my thoughts about morality and what you can afford to have. There was this guy in Florida somewhere who was eighteen and doing gay porn while still in high school – and when the administration found out, they expelled him. Started a whole thing. He was legal to do it, poor – though I guess that's not really a factor in if you want to make money – and I guess his mom supported the whole thing. Was that like my mom in this time and place was doing? Just...being practical? If you want to eat and have a roof over your head, use what you have – your body. Hey, you didn't earn your looks, but if others wanted to watch you and they were willing to pay, money is money. I guess.

But the point is...I needed parents that would be tolerable at least. Or at least one of them. Maybe the reason my initial statement was 'incompatible' was because it couldn't be both of them at once? I thought for a moment and typed.

I live with a parent that takes care of me.

I hit 'Insert', but nothing. I hit 'Execute' and the cursor blinked and I got that weird feeling of skin peeling again – a layer removed, and things were different. I looked around my room and didn't see the electronic junk anymore. Hm. Okay, just a quick few other items here and I'd get on with it.

Kate Plumber is my best friend and Heath Miller is my boyfriend.

I got the familiar reply of a duplicate file found, so that was good. I flexed my fingers and typed.

I have my own car.

I hit 'Insert' and the cursor blinked and the command disappeared.

I grinned. “Fucking sweet.”

My door opened suddenly, and my dad poked his head in, only it wasn't my dad. I mean it was, but it wasn't. It almost felt like I was looking at an optical illusion.

“Hey. Get some sleep. We'll run in the morning before you leave for school. Have to keep in shape for your summer boot camp.”

I blinked a few times. “Summer boot camp?”

He took a step into my room. “Yeah. Do we need a refresher? You need to be in top shape the next few years. You turn eighteen and graduate. You join the military, and I move on. We each get a life.”

It was like I'd been punched in the gut. “I. Uh. Yeah.”

“Okay. Bed.” He turned and left, closing the door solidly behind him.

God damn. I guess taking care of me meant nothing about actually giving a shit about me. It occurred to me then that I'd been thinking big when I'd had thoughts about world peace or ending hunger, but in reality, these things are so incredibly complicated – I can't even get one decent parent. But if I can change reality...maybe I'm thinking too small.

Something weird about what he'd said though...get some sleep? It was morning a moment ago. I stood up and looked out the window again, and it was dark outside. What the hell? What was happening to the day? I glanced at the Retron and figured it had to have something to do with the changes I was making. I wondered if the things I were asking were somehow...more complicated than I realized? Maybe...I was starting to see some side effects of what I was doing?

With an uneasy feeling I sat back down and started to type.

I'm legally emancipated. I have a trust fund to rely on financially.

I hit 'Execute' and the cursor blinked twice and the line disappeared. I felt the almost familiar sensation of the dead skin peeling, my body hairs standing up as some invisible wind moved over me. My brain felt...full. Over full. I blinked and looked around my room. It was familiar and yet many things seemed...out of place. I had carpet on the floor. I had some vague idea of plastic stick-on tiles on my floor, but now...carpet. A medium blue. My room was usually pretty messy – something Kate liked to point out, like, a lot. I can't say it was exactly clean, but...it smelled clean. Cleaner. I didn't recognize the sheets and comforter that were messed up...but then I kind of did. I stood up slowly, looking down at the Retron and its blinking cursor.

I looked around again. Many things seemed correct – a trophy here. The placement of the bed. My...wait, the dresser. Was there a dresser? Not that dresser, certainly – wrong style. Right? It matched the bed. I closed my eyes and took a couple of breaths and then opened them again.

Hang on. This wasn't my room. It's too big.

“Right. Okay. Let's see what we're dealing with. Why do I feel so...odd? Odd. Weird.” I shook my head and left my room, walking out past the master bath and into the combination kitchen slash dining area.

Wait. This was wrong. I mean this was the wrong end of the house. This was my dad's...mom's...room. I stood still and closed my eyes again. Fuck. Slowly I opened my eyes and took in the rooms. There were a few dishes in the small sink and a couple more on a drying rack. There was a pot on the stove with a cover on it – did I cook something? Did I know how to cook something? I took a step toward the stove, but something caught my eye, and I walked over to the living room. There was a love seat and a TV on a small table. The room had some small pictures on the walls. They were a little crooked and as I got closer, I realized they looked familiar.


Kate liked to make stuff, but the last time I saw these they were in her closet. I think. Now...they hung here. I spent a minute just walking past them, admiring her efforts. Well. If the master bedroom is mine and the trailer is mine...what's in my old room? I shook my head. My old room? Jesus, I must be overtired. I walked to the door of the second bedroom and opened the door to a small office. I saw a tiny desk with my school laptop sitting on it. A beat-up filing cabinet leaned to one side, probably from an interior support that had let go.

I paused and closed my eyes again. Opening them, I looked out of the window to the bright, cold midday sun. That felt wrong. This whole thing felt wrong. I turned and walked back through the house. As I passed through the kitchen, there was a knock at the door. Curious, I went and opened the door. A large man stood outside, a huge pickup truck idling behind him in the small parking space for this trailer.

“Hey. Just doing my check. Making sure you have no...complaints,” the guy said.

“Uh, no. All good.”

“Good,” he said, nodding and turning to leave. He paused and looked over his shoulder. “Maybe I should have a look inside? Trust but verify, right?”

“I'm good.”

He turned fully to face me. “Well. Being as you're alone. A minor. I should really be sure.”

I opened my mouth, but then thought better of it. I wasn't sure what his function was, but he didn't look like someone whose attention I wanted to attract. In fact, the guy scared me a bit. It was...instinct. Instinct from dealing with...someone else who had that same dangerous look. I closed and locked the door, my hand shaking. I went quickly back to the bedroom and sat down with the Retron again.

“I feel empty,” I said to the room. “Every time I've tried to change things, it hasn't worked out so well. What choice do I have but to try again?”

The cursor blinked steadily on the screen. I was startled by someone banging on the door, this time much harder. I stood and looked out the window and saw the truck was still there, but now I saw someone else standing in front of it and another grabbing something from the bed. Shit. That guy hadn't looked in any way official. With panic gripping my heart I heard the front door break in – those things weren't all that tough.

“Okay. Don't make this harder than it has to be,” a voice boomed from the living room. Holy shit – I wasn't sure what they wanted, but I was damn sure I didn't want to find out.

Hurriedly I typed: My dad didn't hurt that family and got the help he needed. He is my parent.

After hitting 'Execute' I sat still. The pounding had stopped. No wait, the guy had been inside so there wasn't pounding. Wait, what pounding? I felt dizzy. I closed my eyes and thought I heard the pounding again, but then it was gone. I felt tired. My skin felt tight, like it was recovering from a sun burn. A tingling feeling ran over me, and I shivered involuntarily.

With a deep breath I opened my eyes. I was in my room – my room that wasn't one of my parents'. Against the wall was a long table with some electronic items in pieces, something that had been picked at. Maybe to see how it worked, maybe to try to fix. Before me was my desk...but not my desk. My head swam. I closed my eyes and let out a slow breath, then tried to focus again. The desk was solid and old, not particle board and cheap. My school laptop was closed to one side, and before me was the Retron. On the wall above my desk was one of Kate's paintings.

“Riley! Hey, Rile!”

I stood unsteadily. That had sounded almost like my dad, but not quite. Was it the guy who'd been pounding on the door? As I thought it, another thought chased it – what guy pounding on the door?


“Coming!” I called out and moved to the door, unsteadily at first but gaining control with each step. I opened my door to the living room – one that felt unreal and yet well known. The couch was in good repair, something that was close to leather, with a matching armchair. In the kitchen my dad was...cooking?

He turned and opened his mouth wide as if to yell, but then noted me. “Jeez, kid. I thought you'd have more energy for your date tonight.”

“I. What?”

He looked down and flicked the stove off before looking back toward me. “You must have needed that nap.”

I took a few steps closer and looked at him. Yeah. It was my dad, but...he had a little stubble, but not the drunken week-long kind. His hair was still on the long side, but clean and styled. He looked thinner than I thought he should, but overall...he looked healthy.

I rubbed my face, and he laughed at me. I mean...I don't remember ever hearing him laugh.

“Stop,” I whined.

He laughed some more. “Look, you better get in the shower, or Heath will be calling, wanting to know why you're late for your anniversary dinner – oops! He doesn't know it's for your anniversary!” He let his eyes go comically wide and covered his mouth.

“Who are you?” I asked, my voice low and scratchy.

He exited the kitchen and stood before me, an amused expression on his face. “Hey. Did you think being bi was going to be a big deal with me? Heath is great – and good for you. I thought it was going to be Kate, but you guys never seemed to get on the same page romantically.”

“Kate? She's like my sister. Eww!” I responded. He laughed and pushed my shoulder gently. “Go. Shower.”

“Okay,” I said, mumbling and confused as I moved away from him and back to my room. I closed the door behind me and was surprised to see the box for the Retron on the table and the shipping box, which I'd broken down flat and stashed behind my bed, lying intact on my bed.

I walked over to the Retron and looked down at the odd keyboard.

“So, I guess you're leaving.” I paused, not really sure what I expected. Certainly not for it to speak, but I half expected a response to appear on the screen. “I suppose if I got rid of the boxes you'd just make them again – you can change reality, after all.” I cleared my throat. “I'm not sure what you really are, why you do what you do...I feel like you've changed things for me.”

I sat down in front of the keyboard.

“I feel like I should be typing more. To ask for a comfortable, safe life. But you can't appreciate things without something to compare them to, like I couldn't appreciate Heath without the relationships I've had before to know that he's special.” I ran my fingertips across the bottom of the case. “If I ask you to make me comfortable or...stuff...I don't know how that changes things. How it changes me. I don't think you could change homelessness or hunger worldwide. I think there are so many moving parts that maybe...it breaks things. Maybe the number of things you changed for me...made the days slip. Maybe it's why I still feel a little dizzy.”

I pulled my hand back.

“I think, maybe, I got close to doing something...bad. Maybe for the world. Maybe for reality. Maybe...just me.” I shook my head. “Even so...I think when I come back from my shower you'll be gone. I don't know where you'll go next. I hope you do good wherever that is. I hope you'll excuse me for typing one more time...and I hope it won't hurt me.”

I licked my lips and watched the Retron, but the cursor simply blinked on the screen. I cleared my throat again and placed my fingers on the keyboard.

Riley Kincaide will graduate with his best friend, Kate Plumber, and his boyfriend, Heath Miller.

Insert. Two blinks and the words were gone.

Riley will go to a four year school and earn a bachelor's degree.

Insert. Two more blinks.

Kate will get an opportunity to live in Venice for a year as part of an immersive study program. Marco Suarez will be her faithful companion.

Insert. Blink, blink.

I bit my lip. I thought about what I wanted. I thought about what Heath said he wanted. I thought about choice, luck and our own free will.

Riley Kincaide and Heath Miller will have good jobs, live well and do good in their lifetime. If they choose to, they will do it together.

Insert. Blink. Blink.

I let out a slow breath. “I could ask you to make Heath and I happy, but I guess that's up to us. Isn't it?” I stood and touched the power button, considered a moment, then pressed it and watched the screen fold. I picked up the Retron and placed the Styrofoam braces on each corner and slid it into the box and closed the flap. Then I slid the whole thing into the shipping box and folded the end down.

“Wherever you go next, I hope you do good,” I said.

I was startled by my phone ringing. Looking at the screen, I saw my boyfriend was calling. I answered, seeing his face on my phone.

“You look cute, but not just-showered cute,” he said.

I smiled at him. “I was just getting in. You're actually delaying me.”

His eyes went wide. “My fault? Mr. I'm-Late-Everywhere is blaming me?”

“Sure,” I said with an easy smile. “I was thinking of you and just stopped to think some more. And you know when I get in the shower, I'll have to think about you, at least for a few minutes. Right?”

His cheeks went a little red and he smiled a little. “Don't you think being sexy-cute is getting you out of this. You said we had a reservation, and I've been ready.”

“I can tell. You look great.”

He smiled a bit more and then looked at me with a hint of confusion. “Are you okay, Babe?”

“You know what? I think I am.”

He lowered his voice. “Hurry up. I can't wait to see you.”

I couldn't help but smile. “I love you, Heath.”

His cheeks went a little bit more red and his smile went crooked. “I love you, too. Now hurry up!”

“On my way.”

I hung up and tossed my phone aside. I grabbed my towel and headed for the door. I looked back, briefly wondering if I should try something else, but no. Humanity can't be fixed by wishing it so. The work had to be done. I did wonder what good I would be able to do in the world, though. I'm certain that with Heath by my side it would be more than I could achieve on my own.